Black Folks Do Ski

50 years ago, two black American skiers were introduced by a mutual friend. It led to the ‘National Brotherhood of Skiers’. The two men, both in their 80s, have made it into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. PlanetSKI has been speaking to them.

The two men were Ben Finley, who was President of the Four Seasons West Ski Club of Los Angeles, and Art Clay, the Trip Director of the Sno-Sophers Ski Club of Chicago.

When they met in 1972, black skiers were hardly ever seen on the slopes.

They decided to bring together 13 black ski clubs for a “Black Summit” at Aspen, Colorado.

It took place in 1973 and was attended by 350 skiers from across the country.

It led to the establishment of the first national organisation of predominantly black ski clubs and, next year, the National Brotherhood of Skiers will hold its 50th anniversary summit in Vail.

In Ben’s own words, the organisation has ” introduced snow sports to the African American community, creating a huge family and squashing the idea that black folks don’t ski.”

Its mission today is “to identify, develop and support athletes of color who will win International and Olympic winter sports competitions representating the United States and to increase participation in winter sports.”

For their work over five decades, Ben and Art have now been inducted into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Ben Finley (second left)  & Art Clay (second right) celebrating their induction into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame – photo c/o National Brotherhood of Skiers

They both fell into the sport simply because they wanted to impress the ladies.

“I got into skiing because a young lady I was dating told me that she wanted to go skiing,” Ben tells us.

“When she said that, the first thing I thought of was broken legs and dollar bills.”

It was not love at first slide.

“I hated my first four lessons but on the fifth one I could finally do a hockey stop and I said ‘Gee, this is not bad!’

Art’s first experience was remarkably similar.

“Some friends talked me into going on a ski trip.  I saw all the pretty girls out there and decided that was for me,” he says.

On one of his first trips, he thought he knew it all and was too proud to accept help.

“I started falling out of the chair.  Every time I got up I would fall, I was getting nowhere.”

Eventually he took instruction, got hooked and was skiing every weekend at slopes accessible from Chicago.

“Each time we would go we might see one other black on the slopes.  By the time we left the slopes that person was a friend of ours and we would communicate.”

The networking led Art to Ben over in California and, some time later, to them founding the National Brotherhood of Skiers.

The founders of the NBS on the slopes – photo c/o National Brotherhood of Skiers

The name of the organisation was chosen carefully to avoid panicking the overwhelmingly white ski areas.

“This way we wouldn’t be advertising the fact that a bunch of blacks were coming!” Art says.

“The image of blacks coming to a ski area probably hasn’t changed over the 50 years that I’ve been there.

“I haven’t experienced any overt racism but it’s always there.  You always feel it.”

The NBS was originally set up to bring together black skiers who wanted to ski and have a good time.

Out of that grew the idea of getting an African-American on the US Olympic team.

Over the years, the NBS has provided support to a number of skiers who have made it onto the team.

  • Bonnie St. John, 1984 Paralympics, silver & two bronze medals
  • Ralph Green, US Ski and Snowboard Team, Paralympics
  • Suki Horton, US Ski and Snowboard Team (Development)
  • Andre Horton, US Ski and Snowboard Team
  • Lauren Samuels, US Ski and Snowboard Team Development

Lauren Samuels & Ralph Green, NBS elite team 2010 – photo c/o David Samuels/National Brotherhood of Skiers

Beyond that, the NBS has succeeded in introducing more black people to the sport and now has around 50 member clubs.

“We’ll always be a minority but, yes, I think the creation of the NBS and the tens of thousands of people that we have managed to bring to the ski slopes has generally and dramatically increased the number of people skiing,” Ben says.

But, he says, there’s a long way to go.

“Very definitely there’s more that can be done.  The NBS has teamed up in the past two years with various partners across the ski industry who certainly have recognised the lack of diversity and are now interested in putting together programmes that will relieve this situation, not only in the weekend skier but in the Olympic ski programme.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the past two years to be positioned as the spokesperson for diversity in the United States.”

Its partners include the US Ski & Snowboard Team which, according to Ben, the NBS is helping to “understand where their weaknesses are relative to expanding the sport or expanding their outreach programme across the country, because right now it’s very limited.

“When you recognise you can meet with people like us who have access to young people in major cities as opposed to ski areas that certainly widens the pipeline.”

Team NBS skiers – photo c/o National Brotherhood of Skiers

The massive Vail Resorts is also a partner, offering clubs in the eastern region the chance to send skiers to its Epic Pass mountain areas for five on-snow sessions per season.  It is also pledging help with career opportunities in snow sports, youth mentoring and training and hiring of ski and snowboard instructors of colour.

Ben and Art are hoping their raised profile, now that they’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame, will help improve diversity in the sport still further.

“It is my hope that the National Brotherhood of Skiers will be around for many, many years to come,” Art says.

“It is my hope that we will contribute to the Olympic programme, that we will continue to bring folks into the sport of skiing.”

But their own time on skis is pretty much at an end.

“I think I’ll try to slide down the hill one last time next year… our 50th anniversary,” Art, now 85, says.

“I last got out before the pandemic and the pandemic has made me lazy.

“I have the desire but I just don’t have the body, the legs to get back out there.”

Art Clay (bottom right) with his Chicago-based ski club – photo c/o National Brotherhood of Skiers

Ben has been forced to into ski retirement.

“While I’m still able to ski I can’t breathe while I’m doing it and that causes a serious issue.

“I have hung up my skis as of this year.

“At 83 years old I’ve had 57 good years and the body is saying ‘you don’t wanna do this anymore’.”

Ben Finley & Art Clay – photo c/o US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame